Bruno Latour, Richard Tarnas, and the Question of Modernity

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I finally got around to reading Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern and I found it both fascinating and infuriating. As I was reading, I kept thinking how interesting it is that Latour published his influential book in 1991, the same year Richard Tarnas published The Passion of the Western Mind, one of my favorites. Although very different books, what they have in common is a broad historical view of modernity in relation to premodernity and what comes after the postmodern (if we take “postmodern” to mean the late phase of modernity), or in Latour’s case, what denies or dissolves the modern. Very briefly, Latour’s primary point that the three dualities of society,  nature, and “the crossed-out God” (all appearing as both transcendent and immanent in modern discourse) create multiple escape hatches for any argument against modern premises seems strikingly similar to Tarnas’ point that modernity has constructed subject and object, psyche and cosmos, as increasingly incommensurable through the instrumentality of a unitary transcendent, but personal, God, and that this perceived inability for the mind to know the thing itself is the root of “the Post-Copernican double bind.” In my reading, it seems that the cores of both works partially intersect and express the quality of that moment near the height of postmodernism, which has a lot to do with seeing through seemingly airtight modern constructs to a novel vision of reality.

As I see it, a primary difference between Latour’s book and Tarnas’ is that although Tarnas’ style is subtle and elegant, his rhetoric is always in service to the clear and engaging expression of big ideas. In contrast, Latour’s style, as with most writing generally grouped under the “postmodern” or “poststructuralist” rubrics (I think he belongs in this category even though he denies it), seems to privilege style over sense, though to my mind not as extremely as Derrida or Foucault (both of whom I appreciate and am frustrated by in equal parts). It seems to me that the “poststructuralist” style focuses on expressing ideas in novel, scintillating, and evocative ways.  Often this seems to take the form of writing in such a manner that it appears that profound and brilliant things are being said, but it’s impossible to determine what precisely is being said, so the meaning remains ambiguous: writing more as a means of gaining power and less as a means of communication. For instance, one trick this style of writing employs is using familiar words (mediator, intermediary, purification, hybrid, etc.) as a centerpiece of the argument without ever really defining what these words mean in context, so one feels like one should understand what is being said because one knows the words, but one is often uncertain precisely to what they refer.

I prefer the classic narrative clarity of Passion, though it is probably important to recognize that the style in which Latour engages has been the dominant one in the most fashionable sectors of the humanities and social sciences for the last few decades (the sectors that often control the most prestigious academic jobs and publications). In contrast, if we can judge very roughly by the respective numbers of reviews on Amazon (76 for Passion, 8 for Modern), it seems clear that Passion has simply been a far more popular book among the general educated public. In my reading, Latour’s writing betrays and produces anxiety while Tarnas’ writing is inspiring and elevating, an instance of what Alfred North Whitehead calls “that slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference.” Passion is a book that seems to build a bridge from what might be characterized as a novel, participatory mode of thought to the centers of academic power, inviting the main streams of academia to engage with what appears to be an emerging mode of consciousness after postmodernism. On the other side, Modern seems similarly to build a bridge from the poststructuralist discursive domains towards the emerging modes of thought, expressing similar ideas to those articulated by Tarnas (and William James, Carl Jung, Henri Bergson, Whitehead, Jean Gebser, Sri Aurobindo, etc.) less clearly, but with an obfuscating, unlocatable panache perhaps more attractive to the current American academic orthodoxy in large part because it excludes non-specialists.

Tarnas and Latour also simply disagree on some key theoretical points. As much as I can understand Latour (or perhaps as much as he can be understood), he seems to present the Hegelian dialectic as a process that claims to produce radical novelty by leaving behind the old, whereas it is clear from Tarnas’ work, and any number of other theorists including Hegel himself, that the dialectic includes the old but reframes it in a novel context, which transforms the character of the whole. Indeed, that Latour rejects the “revolutionary miracle,” the sudden, numinous emergence of radical novelty, speaks volumes about his implicit prejudices. He will do anything and in fact has done everything he can to deny enchantment (in Weber’s sense), though perhaps this will be different in his current Gifford lectures, which I intend to watch soon. “Haven’t we shed enough tears over the disenchantment of the world?” Latour asks, but shouldn’t we be concerned that our birthright of living in an enchanted world has been rendered increasingly difficult to locate in modern society? Latour seems to think us merely whiners for something that he perceives as not really having been lost, but then he is evasive and vague about why we have collectively mourned disenchantment so deeply for so long, leaving it up to some hypothetical “psychologist” “subtle enough to explain our morose delight” at this situation, which is a profoundly condescending and dismissive thing to write for those of us who have in fact felt the genuine depth of this loss. I can suggest a few psychologists Latour might look at if he wants to explore this apparently fundamental human need for enchantment that he dismisses so off-handedly, C.G. Jung, Stanislav Grof, and James Hillman first among them.

Latour caricatures those of us who agree with Weber that the world has been rationalized and disenchanted as “antimoderns” who see modernity as pure tragedy. His discussion of networks and relationism is useful, but this facile dismissal is overly simplistic straw-man thinking. For Latour, you’re either for modernity, against it, or you must opt out altogether in more or less positive ways (nonmodern or postmodern). In contrast, for Tarnas, being against modernity or opting out of modernity is as absurd as being against your own adolescence or trying to opt out of it. For both modernity and adolescence, it was necessary to go through that stage of process, for it is what has made us who we are. According to Tarnas, modernity has been both a loss and a gain: it has produced the individuation of the autonomous human intellect but at the cost of the disenchantment of the world. Latour seems to want to flatten this epochal transformation, to pretend it never happened.

Again, to deny, as does Latour, that there are centers of institutional power and thus margins is simply obtuse and even offensive in a society in which wealth and power are concentrated in the small percentage at the top. Similarly, Latour’s claim that “there are no more revolutions in store” seems characteristically postmodern however much he denies it—this end of revolutions fits perfectly alongside other postmodern ends: of history, of science, and of metanarratives. But it is simply not true that “there are no more revolutions in store” as, just since 1991, the internet, the paradigmatic network, was born in a revolutionary moment that transformed our experience in profound ways with relative suddenness.

It seems to me that Latour is trying to side-step the modern paradox, the post-Copernican double bind, by simply denying that it ever existed, which is a clever trick, but not, I think, a genuine innovation on the order of what Tarnas refers to as a “participatory epistemology,” which is summed up by Tarnas as the idea that “the human mind is ultimately the organ of the world’s own process of self-revelation.” The trajectory Latour describes from Boyle and Hobbes to Kant to Hegel to the phenomenologists to the postmoderns to the semiotic turn to what others are referring to as his nonhuman turn is a tale of finding more and more desperately ingenious ways to reify the dominance of mind (except maybe for Hegel). The greatest implicit fear of the modern, it seems to me, is that if we let go of the privileging of intellect, we will be stupid animals. However, it seems clear that what is needed is a reembrace of embodied affectivity, what Whitehead calls “bodily reference,” by rational intellect. True transformation requires submission to the pain of what is being lost, the unconscious privileging of mentality to which we have been addicted, whereas the mind itself can only be enriched by this wider epistemological opening after a period of withdrawal. As we know, the only way to produce a new birth is to go straight down the middle, while Latour seems to deny that birth can even occur or has ever occurred.

As I see it, Latour’s is the last wild gambit of the modern self to avoid ego death (after the previous last wild gambit in Derrida et al.). Rather than denounce him, we should strive to feel compassion for him and try to make the transition between eras as painless as possible, because he is us. Until Latour is free to believe in a mode of cognizance based on formal and final causation, none of us can truly be free. Beneath all of the dissimulating language and murky stew of ideas, Latour does not provide an answer to the questions of modernity, only a rejection of the modern so complete that he calls his book We Have Never Been Modern. But we have been modern because we have called ourselves modern; it is an idea we have lived with for centuries, that has taken generations to define to its furthest permutations.

The danger of Latour’s book is that, if we have never been modern, we cannot overcome our modernity in the embrace of a radically novel mode. This possibility does not exist for Latour, but a brief glance at history will show again and again that new ideas really do have the power to transform the world with relative suddenness. Latour is trying to master the modern by opting out of it, like Groucho Marx who wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have him. However, where Latour completely denies and negates the modern, Tarnas embraces its grand project, while acknowledging its deep tragedies, and paints its fulfillment in the further development of history’s series of radical emergences grounded in the stable continuity of origin. To a great extent, we are what we choose to be. We invent and live through names and concepts like “modern,” “nonmodern,” “nonhuman,” and “participatory,” and these concepts inform all aspects of our lives. Sometimes, as now seems to be the case, we need new names for what we are becoming, not merely a rejection of what we have never been.

In the final analysis, I see the role of my preferred community of thinkers and writers, which is generally more influenced by Tarnas than by Latour, as to engage with the mode of discourse that Latour is pushing in our direction (particularly in his use of the “Gaia” motif in his current Gifford lectures), perhaps on our end pushing the new paradigm to integrate some of the undeniably potent rhetorical sophistication of poststructuralism. We’re lucky to live in a time when the two ends of the polarity of enchanted and disenchanted are so close, a hair’s breadth apart.  It seems to me that all it requires is a few more stones to be a laid, a few more great books to be written and a few more institutions funded, for the bridge between the old and the new paradigm finally to be complete and durable. When that happens, my guess is that there will be a flood of pilgrims to the new dispensation, the political and conceptual networks of academia will reconfigure themselves with relative suddenness around a new “center of gravity,” and we will be in a fundamentally new world.

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9 responses to “Bruno Latour, Richard Tarnas, and the Question of Modernity

  1. Hey Grant, Great post. I’m so glad you’ve taken the time to think through this sort of comparison between Tarnas’ integralism and Latour’s poststructuralism. I’m going to try and work on a response for you over on my blog. As a teaser, both for my response and for Latour’s Gifford Lectures (which I just completed last night), here is one of the last things Latour left his Univ. of Edingburgh audience with: “Whereas the Atlas of the scientific revolution could hold the globe in his hand, scientists of the Gaian counter-revolution, I am sorry to say, look more like ticks on the mane of a roaring beast.”

    -Matt

  2. Thanks, Matt. I’m glad you liked my post. I’ve been meaning to read Latour for a while considering his popularity among members of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts, which holds a conference where I’ve presented papers three of the last four years. I actually went straight from Esalen the last time I saw you to Milwaukee to present a piece on Jung and Whitehead that ended up being published by the Archai journal. I thought it was time to get in on the action now that Latour has given his Gifford Lectures, which I’m looking forward to watching soon. I was disappointed that We Have Never Been Modern didn’t resonate with me the way I thought it would, but it sounds like he’s evolved significantly over the last two decades. Anyway, that’s an interesting quote, and I’ll look forward to reading your response.

    • Hey Grant,
      I am not sure how much he has really evolved. I think it’s more that there were hidden potentials in his earlier work (like WHNBM) that are only now becoming manifest. His difficult concepts like “hybrid” and “quasi-object” are an attempt to reveal the way natural science is actually a kind of animistic magic; that reductionism, far from reducing the number of agencies there are in the world, multiplies and distributes them endlessly. I think precisely because he has “never been modern” he has always been enchanted.
      To tell you the truth, though, I’ve read a very small portion of his work. I come to him mostly through Whitehead, whose philosophy of organism Latour has appropriated in a variety of creative ways. I am especially excited by his application of Whitehead’s process ontology to politics and to the philosophy of science.
      BTW, I’ve posted a longer response for you over on footnotes2plato.
      -Matt

  3. Pingback: Reflections on Latour, Tarnas, and the Misenchantment of the World | Footnotes 2 Plato

  4. Hi Matt, thanks for your thoughtful and thought-provoking response. I’m working on a reply that I should have up in the next few days. I was able to catch Latour’s first Gifford Lecture, the tone of which I think is subtly but significantly different than that of “Modern.” I’m looking forward to watching the other lectures and to continuing our conversation.

  5. I look forward to your reply, Grant. There was one more thing I forgot to respond to in my post, which has to do with this section of your post:

    You write: “…Latour’s claim that ‘there are no more revolutions in store’ seems characteristically postmodern however much he denies it—this end of revolutions fits perfectly alongside other postmodern ends: of history, of science, and of metanarratives.”

    I’m not so sure he was attempting to deny the revolutionary. For example, Latour has made a great deal of fun (as have many other academics) of Fukuyama’s book ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ because it makes the spurious claim that “democratic capitalism” represents the best political-economic system humans could hope to achieve. Latour’s claim in ‘Modern’ is rather that, as he puts it on p. 57: “The end of history is followed by history no matter what.” Which is to say, there will always be a need for more political struggle, more revolutions, because there is no way some (political, economic, philosophical, etc.) system could ever finally get it right (where get it right means no one is marginalized and all agree as to its truth).

    Compare what Latour wrote in ‘Modern’ about revolutions to what he says in his Gifford lectures (this from lecture 5):

    “What progress-minded people could not anticipate was that the
    revolution they longed for had already happened. However, it had come
    not from any massive change in the ‘property of means of production’
    but had occurred full speed in the movement of the carbon cycle! At a
    time when so many people lament the ‘lack of revolutionary spirit’ and
    the ‘demise of emancipatory ideals,’ it is left to natural historians to
    reveal that the revolution has already occurred, that the events we have
    to cope with do not lie in the future, but largely in the past: this is what
    they call ‘The Great Acceleration, ’the beginning of which marks the
    golden spike for dating the Anthropocene. Revolutionary minded
    activists are taken on the wrong foot when they realize that whatever
    we do now, the threat will remain with us for centuries, for millennia,
    because the baton of so many irreversible revolutionary actions by
    humans has been taken over by the inertial warming of the sea, the
    changes in the albedo of the poles, by the growing acidity of the oceans
    and is visible in the tipping points reached by the slow creep of
    Himalayan glaciers. So here is another unanticipated twist in the arrow
    of time; the revolution has already ended, or it has to be done all over
    again; this is enough to make everyone of us totally disoriented. I am
    convinced that at the root of climate skepticism, there is this amazing
    reversal in the direction of progress, in the definition of what is the
    future and what it means to belong to a territory.”

    Latour may be skeptical of the goals of revolutionaries only because “revolution” would seem to be among the most essential features of Modernity. The past few centuries have brought one revolution after the next, where each one is supposed to have finally have made us ‘really’ Modern. He isn’t out to deny the revolutionary outright, of course; the entire point of his lectures on Gaia and the Anthropocene is to argue, as the above quote makes clear, that yes, there most definitely has been a revolution of geological proportions; unfortunately, it is not the sort of revolution that the moderns have for so long been expecting.

    • Hi Matt, I fully support Latour’s right to change his mind or complicate his own past statements, but I take him at his word when he says “there are no more revolutions in store.” If it requires you to do a whole song and dance to get around that apparently straightforward statement, he’s just not doing his job as a writer, which is presumably to communicate his ideas so they can be understood unambiguously by smart guys like us. I’ll have more to say about this in my response, and I’m more than willing to accept it if his views have changed in the last two decades. In fact, I want him to succeed and be the person who creates a bridge between Derridean rhetorical sophistication and a world view that can accept archetypal cosmology, but based solely on “Modern,” I just don’t think he was there as of the early nineties. My full response is almost ready–I’ll look forward to continuing the conversation.

  6. Pingback: Bruno Latour, Richard Tarnas, and the Birth of Gaia | Rock and Roll Philosopher

  7. Pingback: Cutting Out the Inessential: How I Got My Appendix Out Twice in One Week and Started a Blog | Rock and Roll Philosopher

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